New geolocation app connects citizen first responders to heart attack victims

Connected citizens trained in CPR now have a new tool to help them save lives.

Update below from Tim O’Reilly, who attended the announcement.

Today the San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District (SRVFPD) in California is launching an iPhone app that will dispatch trained citizens to help others in cardiac emergencies. The new app, available at, is the latest evolution of the role of citizens as sensors, where resources and information are connected to those who need it most in the moment.

The FireDepartment app is also an important example of Gov 2.0, where a forward-looking organization created a platform for citizens to help each another in crises and planned to make the underlying code available for civic developers to improve on. Given context and information, trained citizens in San Ramon will now be able to do more than alert authorities and share information: they can act to save lives.

FireDepartment app

“Everyone knows that mobile devices are changing the way we live and work,” said Tim O’Reilly in an email. “By providing some critical communications, location-awareness, and alert infrastructure, the application lets citizens closest to a life-threatening emergency be of help before official resources arrive.  The creators of this application have moved beyond the real-time Web to the right time Web.”

At the outset, the iPhone application will only be in use in the San Ramon district. That will likely change given the support from the first responder and technology community. It directly relates to one of the leading causes of death in the United States. “Nation-wide, we have over 300,000 people dying from cardiac arrest every year,” said Richard Price, fire chief at SRVPD. “This app will help put rescuers where they are and get automatic electronic defibrillators off the wall.”

Currently, Price says that there’s less than an 8 percent chance of survival if someone goes into cardiac arrest on the street. “With a cardiac arrest, you only get about 10 minutes to help,” he said. “On average, it takes 7 minutes for first responders from a 911 call to arrive. The reason many people are dying is because of that difference.”

This FireDepartment application will empower citizens to bridge that critical gap of time before paramedics arrive and give them access to an essential tool: an automatic electronic defibrillator (AED). When an AED is used within the first 10 minutes, survival rates rise to nearly 80 percent, said Price. This new app could help to improve that survival rate by alerting a trained citizen to a crisis nearby and showing them where to go to get an AED. According to Price, AEDs are currently taken off the wall in 5 percent of cases. The app also includes access to the radio band where first responders coordinate response.

FireDepartment app

The mechanism behind the application relies on both human judgment and automated software. After a trained 911 dispatcher inputs certain codes from a call, the software automatically sends a push notification to all of the people with the app in the jurisdiction. Citizens that have downloaded the app get a text alert pushed to them when there’s a nearby incident that fits the cardiac arrest profile.

The fire departments don’t know who a given citizen is, said Price, only that they’ve opted in repeatedly and indicated that they are CPR-certified. “We use the long Apple ID and only track in our jurisdiction. We start tracking any phone that’s running the app that’s in our district.” Eventually, this may develop into a multi-jurisdictional client where citizens could use a configuration screen to toggle locations on and off. Opening the smartphone then brings the user to a map with the location of the incident, the nearest automatic electronic defibrillator (AED) and the citizen’s current position.

This move to share the code is an important precedent in the first responder community and has earned support from national leaders. WorkDay, a software company that’s donating development and community efforts to support the app, has committed resources to help other municipalities get the application. “With the creative environment and innovation of a Silicon Valley start up, this municipal fire department has accomplished a feat previously unthinkable,” said Petros Dermetzis, vice president of development at Workday, in a prepared statement. “They should be recognized for their significant achievement and their general public license distribution plans.”

In a follow-up email, Dermetzis said that WorkDay developers have volunteered to get the app running on more platforms, including Android and BlackBerry.

The San Ramon fire department, which developed the app in-house, released a demo of the app:

Here’s Tim O’Reilly’s report from the event:

I was at the release event for this app. There are a number reasons I’m interested in it:

1. It’s a real “scratch your own itch” app. It was developed after the San Ramon fire chief had the horrendous experience of sitting at lunch with his team (including a paramedic) only to discover that next door someone had been dying of a heart attack. He didn’t learn of it till the fire truck pulled up, siren blaring. He realized the need for an alert system that would reach out to the mobile phone of anyone trained in CPR who is nearby. Hence this app. Now, when an ambulance or fire truck is dispatched to help a heart attack victim, the same dispatch is sent to the app, which checks to see if the user is nearby to the person in crisis. In addition, the app shows the location of the nearest AED (defibrillator).

2. It’s a great example of what I call “government as a platform.” That is, the Fire Department has built infrastructure that helps citizens to help each other. There are 1.2 million firefighters in the US. But there are 3 million additional citizens who are trained in CPR (and many more who could be); if this app could be made available nationwide, it could potentially save many more of the 300,000 people who die of a heart attack each year in the US (and many more around the world.)

3. There’s a real challenge, though. While San Ramon has built a tool that works well for their purposes, and has evangelized it well to their local citizens (22,000 people already carry a previous version of the app, which lets citizens report or follow other kinds of emergencies), it needs to spread to other fire districts around the country to achieve its true goal. This made me think it might be a good fit for Civic Commons, which aims to be a mechanism by which cities can share their innovative projects with each other.

The app itself doesn’t really need to be open sourced (though San Ramon is considering that.) Local resident Dave Duffield (of Peoplesoft fame) has committed developers from his new company, Workday, to develop Android and Blackberry versions. What does need to be open sourced is the back-end code that interfaces with the Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) systems used by police and fire departments to respond to 911 requests. The San Ramon app interfaces with an Intergraph CAD system, but there are six other major vendors whose systems are in wide use. San Ramon and Workday are working to think through how best to package up the interface code so it can be ported to other systems.

There’s also a crowdsourcing challenge. San Ramon spent significant effort to track down all the AEDs in their fire district. Unless other fire districts do the same, that particular part of the app won’t work. It strikes me that there’s an interesting crowdsourcing challenge here; perhaps citizens themselves can help to build the AED database. (It would be ideal if a company like Google or ESRI would try to build a national database and provide the data as an open web service, so that new fire districts would simply need to install the middleware for the app to work with their citizens.)

San Ramon is looking for other agencies that want to adopt the app.

tags: , ,